This account of the healing of Bartimaeus concludes a central section in Mark’s gospel that began in chapter 8 with the healing of a nameless blind man in Bethsaida. When these literary bookends appear in scripture, they can act as an invitation, of sorts, to deeper study; for example, how blindness may be a unifying theme.
Not only do these two healings, and the content they encase, speak of different kinds of blindness, the entire section acts as a small travelogue – a bridge between Jesus’ life and teachings in Galilee, and his final activity (including his passion and death) in Jerusalem. The placement, then, of this material, is significant; and a brief review helps us see why.
Since the healing in Bethsaida, Mark’s narrative has been sharpening its focus on establishing Jesus’ identity and mission. We’ve seen:
• Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus’ rebuke
• The Transfiguration of Our Lord
• The disciples trying to stop a man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, simply because the man was not in their club (so to speak)
• The testing of Jesus by the Pharisees regarding marriage and divorce
• Jesus declaring “Let the little children come to me”
• The rich man who was so sad at having to give away his riches that he didn’t follow Jesus
• James and John’s misguided request to sit on Jesus’ right and left in his glory
o And Jesus’ guidance in response – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” – the central message of Mark’s gospel.
All that in less than two chapters – yes, indeed, we learn about Jesus’ mission and identity. And now, in verses 46-52 of Mark Chapter 10, we find a healing story that is also a call story. Bartimaeus is an example of a different, perhaps a more developed illustration of true discipleship – which takes a clearer shape when we hold his story up next to the restoration of sight depicted in chapter 8.
The blind man in Bethsaida – in chapter 8 – is passive. He is brought to Jesus by the crowd. Bartimaeus, here in Jerico, is not. He faces efforts, at first, to prevent him from coming to Jesus. It’s interesting to note, as well, that in Bethsaida, Jesus makes repeated efforts to restore the man’s sight – he makes mud out of clay and his own spit, and applies it twice before the healing is accomplished. Moreover, the unnamed man in Bethsiaida is instructed to go home – the most common post-healing directive from Jesus. No such command is given Bartimaeus, however, who follows Jesus immediately. That’s important. We’ve come to a place in Mark’s gospel where Jesus, on entering his passion, ceases commanding silence. The end-game is begun.
This section of the story and especially this moment with Bartimaeus is auspicious. More interesting still, in terms of contrasting these restorations of sight, we find that in Bethsaida, Jesus is the primary agent of change. In Jerico, however, he gives full credit to Bartimaeus saying, “Your faith has made you well.” In the former case healing required a two-stage process, and in the latter, a single, dynamic stroke. But it’s good to note that this is not about Jesus getting better at restoring sight; rather it more likely indicates that while gaining full sight is sometimes progressive, full insight about Jesus’ identity may also take some development.
This, of course, becomes even more helpful when we look at the other kinds of blindness Jesus encounters in between these two restorations of sight. Take Peter’s confession, for example. He declares Jesus to be the Messiah, and almost immediately after, Jesus helps him to discover that he’s gotten it wrong – that his sight, as it were, is not as he thought. And Peter is only one example where the disciples seem unwilling or unable to see that God’s reign seeks to subvert the worldly.
In another such example James and John ask to sit on Jesus’ immediate right and left in his glory. It’s interesting how Jesus asks them the same question he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” – a literary echo that draws us into considering similarities. Is gaining full insight of Jesus’ identity in Mark’s gospel progressive? You tell me. James and John unwisely and uncomprehendingly ask for positions of honor and glory. Whereas, subsequently, Bartimaeus asks for sight. There’s a process of building and reshaping going on here.
And while that reshaping may draw us into deeper reflection on the nature of blindness, the implications are, actually, even more profound. This story offers us a revolution in our understanding of the very nature of sin – a revolution that takes place around the person of Jesus, but is actually worked out in the lives of others.
Consider the story of the blind man in Bethsaida as it is told in John’s gospel: the disciples ask Jesus about a man born blind. “Who sinned?” they want to know, “…the man’s parents or the man himself?” Here, as with Mark’s blind men, sin is initially considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. The gospels are full of such examples. The stoning of the woman accused of adultery is one. At the end of each tale, however, sin appears more to be the act of exclusion – the real blindness being that which is present in those who exclude. And it actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion.
Jesus is specifically shown as having no problem with the sort of “sin” that is taken to exclude the “sinner” from the community. He cures the blind man without judging him, just as he saved the adulterous woman – holding nothing against her but everything against those who would stone her. As we gather such information about Jesus in the gospels, we begin to notice that this is, perhaps, the thing that gets under his skin the most. People who think they know exactly what’s on God’s mind – people who demonstrate as much by their efforts to divide, differentiate and exclude.
Watch how Jesus moves and you’ll see how sin is identified as the mechanism of exclusion – and those are blind sinners who are involved in that mechanism without begin aware of what they are doing. But the real problem is not with those who are only blindly part of mechanisms of exclusion, they don’t know what they’re doing. The problem lies with those – like the Pharisees who so often question Jesus over who should be accepted and who should be excluded – the problem is with anyone who intentionally helps to exclude, those who:
• think they have moral insight
• think they know good from evil
• think they are capable of discernment and judgment.
Sometimes people not only take part in mechanisms of exclusion, they justify them as good and from God, and it appears Jesus would have us be aware.
He doesn’t abolish the concept of sin, or simply define it more strongly than before. The notion of sin is subverted from within, in such a way that what sin is, is shown to be much more drastic than previous interpretations, but from quite a different direction. Sin is not what excludes in the person of the excluded one – rather it is the dynamic act of excluding in the persons of the excluders.
What we have in this mini-travelogue of Mark’s gospel is a worldview of sin, and the way Jesus comes to remove it. On his way, he subverts the understanding of sin completely.
In the tale of Bartimaeus and in so many of the mighty acts of healing in the gospels, together the healer and the healed recognize in one another more than the distracting, misguided crowd understands (or the imperial forces, or the temple establishment, or even the disciples) and that is this: That regal authority (and Bartimaeus’ use of the term “Son of David” is meant to evoke a royal heritage), such regal authority comes to divine expression in deliverance – in persistence – and in fulfilling the vocation of recognizing and strengthening one another.
Can we live in this understanding? How are we strengthened ourselves as we strive toward fulfillment of such a vocation?
Bartimaeus offers one more item of assistance. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”, he says. A very few words, but words that have been lifted up by different Christian traditions. The Orthodox Church reveres this as “The Jesus Prayer” and has used it, literally for centuries, as means of opening the heart. Rhythmic and repeated use of this brief prayer is said to bring purification of the soul and to produce inner peace. It’s also part of the Anglican Rosary.
And as the use of The Jesus Prayer begins to resonate in us, we can also look for the ways the teachings of Jesus have found expression in new voices across the ages, even in our own time. So many modern self-help gurus seem to have appropriated the underlying values Jesus taught, and give them new life and resonance. It’s time to take them back into faith community. Carolyn Myss is one such guru, and I love her spin on gospel lessons. She offers another bit of assistance as we try to fulfill our vocation of recognizing and strengthening each other. This is exciting. We’re much better equipped for such service when we consider the following five words: blame, deserve, guilt, fair and fault. Strike these words, and all they imply, from your vocabulary – both in your private thoughts and in your communication with others – and you will notice almost immediately that it is far more difficult to fall into negative emotional patters (the kind of patterns that might lead to mechanisms of exclusion). You’ll also discover just how habitual those patterns had become.
BLAME, DESERVE, GUILT, FAIR, FAULT – can we live without these?
We must thank Bartimaeus! He is not the first person seeking a miracle who approaches Jesus in faith, but he is the only one who winds up following him, presumably straight into Jerusalem and confrontation with a temple-based aristocracy bent on mechanisms of exclusion. After ten full chapters of so much secrecy, confusion and misapprehension, Bartimaeus’ spontaneity and spirit stand in contrast to the fear, silence and hesitation of the disciples. His story shows Mark’s readers that faith in Jesus, even in the face of great challenges, remains possible and potent.
Without Bartimaeus and other like him in Mark’s gospel – others who tenaciously cling to Jesus out of a faith borne of urgent need – this gospel might offer precious little assurance that anyone could have the spiritual insight to perceive the mysterious ways of God in the person and ministry of Jesus.